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'Smart' casting makes this worth it

You know, I gotta admit, after seeing her on "Saturday Night Live" and realizing that everything that comes out of her mouth isn't written by Diablo Cody, Ellen Page is starting to grow on me. That diminutive pugnaciousness. That wise-beyond-her-years wit. That kewpie doll smile. She's lightning in a bottle, that kid.

She's one of the few things that kept me from darting out of the theater during "Smart People," another indie dysfunctional family dramedy that emerged from the bowels of Sundance with the potential to become another "Little Miss Sunshine"-size sleeper hit.

The movie circles around the severely screwed-up Wetherhold family of Pittsburgh.

We get misanthropic widower Lawrence (Dennis Quaid), an English professor at Carnegie Mellon who barely tolerates his students, not to mention his fellow faculty members. At home, he is mostly taken care of by his teenage daughter Vanessa (Page), a budding Young Republican who is even more socially inept than her old man.

When a nasty fall at the school sends Lawrence to the hospital, Lawrence's ne'er-do-well brother (Thomas Haden Church, sporting a sleazy Charles Bronson mustache), who Lawrence can't stop pointing out is adopted, has to occasionally pick him up and drive him around. Lawrence also a college-age son (Ashton Holmes), but he barely figures in this story.

The movie gets going when Lawrence starts dating the doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker) who treated him. The doctor also happens to be one of his former students. Of course, this doesn't bode well for the overprotective Vanessa, who coldly refers to her as "the physician."

For all its egghead charm and snappy repartee, "People" suffers from the same thing movies of its ilk usually suffer from: It doesn't know whether to be cute and clever or brutally honest.

While commercial director-turned-debut filmmaker Noam Murro does what he can with novelist Mark Jude Poirier's acerbic script -- covering it with a wall-to-wall, folksy, emo soundtrack and keeping everything light yet introspective -- it's still a story that seems more implausible than empathetic.

Are we really supposed to believe that Parker's attractive doctor still harbors enough of a crush on Quaid's pompous, potbellied professor (who once gave her a C on a paper) to start going out with him? It's like single-mom waitress Helen Hunt hooking up with brilliant jerk Jack Nicholson in "As Good As It Gets" all over again.

It's a good thing the performances are ably done. I especially liked Church's layabout brother, who turns out to have his head screwed on tighter than anyone in this clan of brilliant minds.

Much like the characters who inhabit the movie, "Smart People" has a air of superiority that automatically gets deflated when you realize it's just as messed up as you are.

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